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W.Va. outage repair takes longer than average, study says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Power outages in West Virginia take nearly four times longer to fix than the national average, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The comparison is based on state and national figures for the "system average interruption duration index," or SAIDI, which measures the average duration of power interruptions for customers.

In a February 2011 report, the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory listed the national SAIDI as 120 minutes per customer. The West Virginia figure was listed as 439 minutes per customer.

Staff and consumer advocates at the state's Public Service Commission believe West Virginia utilities need to reduce the frequency of power outages and the time it takes to get power back on after service is interrupted.

While West Virginia residents continue to deal with the aftermath of the June 29 derecho and a series of other storms over the last two weeks, the PSC is considering new reliability standards that -- depending on how they are written -- could force American Electric Power and FirstEnergy to improve their systems.

Following the last major blackout, in December 2009, the PSC wrote West Virginia's first rules to require enforceable utility reliability targets. Prior to that rule-making, West Virginia was one of a dozen states with no such standards.

Commissioners are considering utility proposals for exactly what sorts of targets for outage frequency and duration they should have to meet.

APCO President Charles Patton said Wednesday his company is not opposed to having such standards.

"To the extent that we could agree on some transparent standards, that everybody knows the guidelines under which we're operating, and the goals we have for this state, personally I don't think that's necessarily a bad idea," Patton said on the MetroNews "Talkline" radio show. "But the devil is always in the details of making sure we get the right metrics and making sure we make our investments in the right things."

Officials from the PSC staff and the Consumer Advocate Division are concerned that plans proposed by the industry will do little to improve the reliability of West Virginia's electrical system.

Last month, PSC staff warned commissioners that utility proposals would simply require companies "to complete work which was neglected for the past 10 years."

"Very little, if any, improvement over the current issues causing outages will change and the infrastructure will continue to deteriorate," wrote Donald E. Walker, a technical analyst with the PSC staff's engineering division.

In his report, Walker cited results of reliability target rules on rural parts of New York, where utilities would face some measure of vegetation, isolation and terrain problems similar to West Virginia.

"The causes for outages loosely track the percentages found in West Virginia," Walker said of the New York data. "Although the percentages of trees and equipment failures causing outages are similar to those in West Virginia, the reliability indices appear to be much better.

"Other states with comparable operating conditions to those found in West Virginia reflect similar statistics found in the New York performance report," Walker wrote. "It is therefore reasonable to expect utilities in our state to achieve the more stringent reliability index targets recommended by staff."

The comparison between West Virginia power outage durations and the national figures was cited Wednesday during a floor speech by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Manchin focused on his complaint that the U.S. should not be spending money on electrical infrastructure improvements in Afghanistan -- where 24 million people have no access to electricity -- while West Virginians remain without power from the recent storms.

But the numbers cited in Manchin's speech came from federal reports that offer suggestions about how states like West Virginia could greatly benefit by implementing a "smart grid" that would use computers and other technology to improve efficiency, reliability, economics and sustainability of the state's electrical system.

"If you apply smart-grid technology, you can make a big difference with reliability," said Steven Pullins, an engineer who contracted for the National Energy Technology Laboratory to study the issue and wrote reports cited in Manchin's speech.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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